Magical girls battle witches in surreal labyrinths in this anime series guaranteed to make your head spin.
It’s quite difficult to get across the real nature of Puella Magi Madoka Magica in a review and at the same time avoid any spoilers – but I’m going to try anyway. From an outline description, it could easily sound like any number of teen anime sci-fi dramas where adolescent kids start exhibiting special powers and indeed, considering that those powers are put to use destroying witches, there’s nothing in the premise that sets it apart from countless other demon slaying anime series either. The cleverness of the series however and the way it maintains its tension across the twelve episodes of the entire series collected here, lies within the simultaneous speed with which events happen that constantly change your whole view of the reality a rate of about every two episodes, while at the same time holding back on the central question that the whole premise (and title) is based on – when is Madoka going to become a Magical Girl? The series and indeed the character of Madoka are both rather reticent about this point, but if you stick around – and it’s definitely worth your while to do so – you’ll discover that there’s a good reason for this, and it’s a lot more complicated than you might think.
As a neatly compact 12-episode complete series however Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not slow at all about revealing the existence of Magical Girls or the fact that Madoka has the potential to be the greatest of them all. Madoka becomes aware of it through a dream where she encounters Homura Akemi even before the new girl starts at Mitakihara Middle School as a transfer student. It proves to be more than a dream however when Madoka wanders into a forgotten corridor of a shopping mall and discovers Homura demonstrating strange powers while chasing a strange little white creature that looks like a cross between a cat and a fox. Madoka rescues the creature, called Kyubey, and it reveals to her the existence of “witches” who pose a threat to the real world. They are not witches in the traditional form, but dark forces that if allowed to develop, could exert a detrimental influence over people, causing pain and even wider scale destruction unless they are eliminated by young girls gifted with extraordinary fighting powers and in possession of a Soul Gem. Madoka and her friend Sayaka are invited to watch another Magical Girl in action, Mami Tomoe, who leads them through the dark labyrinths created by the witches and shows how their Soul Gem’s strength can be increased by gaining power from the Grief Seed of the destroyed witch. If they are willing to become Magical Girls, they will not only have such power, but Kyubey also offers them any wish they could possibly think of as part of the contract.
Ah, if only it were that straightforward, but then if it were, Puella Magi Madoka Magica wouldn’t be the series it is. There are a couple of points that aren’t immediately clear, and some that suggest an obvious degree of caution in accepting such a commission. There’s clearly a rivalry of some sorts between the Magical Girls, with Homura in particular strongly opposed to the idea of Madoka becoming one, particularly since Kyubey has recognised that Madoka could be the most powerful Magical Girl ever. There’s also the question of making a wish that needs to be carefully considered for the unexpected and unforeseen consequences that could arise out of it. For Sayaka, it seems obvious to use her wish to help a young musician friend who is in hospital overcome a terrible injury – but are her intentions pure or is there a selfish motivation attached to them? It’s clear at least that by becoming Magical Girls, Madoka and Sayaka will be helping fighting evil forces, but …well, even there it seems that nothing is entirely clear-cut.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is more than just a magical action sci-fi adventure series then. There are for example some strong real-world implications underpinning the concept that are relevant to the age and situation of the young middle-school girls which make it much more meaningful that it might otherwise appear. At that age, how can we know that our actions are not selfishly motivated, and how can we know what the consequences might be? “Just because you keep trying to do what’s right doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a happy ending“, Madoka’s mother tells her at one stage, which seems to confirm Homura’s warning that “Kindness can bring about an even greater tragedy” while urging her not to accept the contract – but who can tell what her motivations are here and whether she can even be trusted? Homura’s hunting of Kyubey would make it seem that she has some personal issues wrapped up in it all. What’s surprising about the series however is just how well balanced it manages to be between developing these characters, revealing underlying motivations to keep it meaningful while at the same time maintaining a thrilling pace of action (with striking animation), and then constantly managing to throw something new at the viewer that forces them to re-evaluate what they’ve thought to be the truth up to then.
This happens with surprising frequency. What starts out as a simple enough premise turns serious very quickly indeed by only the second episode, and thereafter, there are further revelations and shocks that come with regularity and real impact. It’s meticulously paced in this respect, keeping you waiting for the moment when Madoka will inevitably (it seems) take the plunge. With ominous hints of the coming of Walpurgisnacht, she doesn’t really have any other choice – or does she? Such hesitation and uncertainty reflects the rapidly changing situation, but it also reflects the complexity of reality that Madoka is gradually coming to terms with. There are two sides to every coin, and what you think is for the best might not necessarily be so clear-cut. Even with hindsight, would we still make the same decisions? Well that question arises when everything goes a bit ‘Groundhog Day‘ in Episode 10, throwing you unexpectedly into a series of events and force you to see everything entirely anew. Talk about mindblowing. Combining some very attractive art design and some imaginative battle scenes set in the surreal multimedia collage cut-up world of the labyrinths, with an intelligent sci-fi premise that constantly delivers jaw-dropping moments, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a fine 12-episode complete series that’s all the better for the brevity of its brilliance.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is is released by Manga Entertainment and is available on DVD and Blu-ray. On BD, the 12 episodes of the entire first series are spread across three BD25 discs, each with four episodes. The encoding is 1080/24p, AVC. It is presumed that the discs are encoded for Region B (UK and Europe). Other region compatibility wasn’t tested, but as checkdiscs were provided, testing wouldn’t necessarily be meaningful.
The video quality looks as good as one would expect for a High Definition transfer, but the usual niggles are there also. Puella Magi Madoka Magica makes extensive use of CG effects for the surreal labyrinth sequences, and these come across particularly well in the HD format, but the colour balance, saturation and tone look striking throughout, the animation moving fluidly. There only real issue is the usual one with colour banding, which is quite frequent and something it seems we have to put up with in animation transfers. Other than that however, there are no real issues and the series looks excellent in BD and I would imagine it looks fine also on DVD.
Both the original Japanese track and the English dub are PCM stereo (48kHz.16-bit). The choice of English or Japanese track is entirely dependent on your own preferences. I preferred the Japanese track myself, but the English dub seemed to work just as well in the brief sample I made of it. Both sound reasonably good, but it’s surprising that there are no surround sound options available here.
English subtitles are available with the Japanese track, or with the English version if you want hard-of-hearing titles, the subtitles varying slightly from the spoken English. Subtitles are pale yellow, which means they work well against bright backgrounds and don’t detract too much from the colour schemes of the actual animation the way a bolder yellow often does.
The same extra features are on each of the discs and, consisting solely of a Textless Opening sequence and Trailers for other releases, they don’t amount to much.
Good science-fiction anime releases are rare on the ground these days, but for me they’ve always been the area that Japanese animation really excelled. On the surface Puella Magi Madoka Magica has elements of teen-drama, elements of demon-slaying anime and some “power up” rivalry battles, but there’s solid characterisation underpinning the intelligent science-fiction ideas and situations that gives you plenty to think about as well as something to care about. There’s also plenty to please the eyes in this well-animated series, collected complete here in this Blu-ray release from Manga Entertainment.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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